A Thanksgiving test: Patriots vs. Vikings What to Watch For
For the fist time in 10 years, Thanksgivings across New England will look a little different. The day won’t necessarily end with an early post-meal bedtime – not if fans want to make it to the 8:20 p.m. kickoff between the Patriots and Vikings. It will be the Patriots’ first Thanksgiving game since 2012, when they took on the Jets in the Butt Fumble game.
The Patriots will be taking on a Vikings team that has been tough to get a read on this season. They’re 8-2, but have a scoring differential of minus-2. They ranked towards the middle of the league in both scoring offense and defense, and have played a number of close games.
What are the Patriots looking at as they get ready to face these Vikings on a short week? Here’s a look in this week’s What to Watch For…
LANDOVER, MARYLAND – NOVEMBER 06: Justin Jefferson #18 of the Minnesota Vikings catches a pass for a touchdown in the first quarter of the game against the Washington Commanders at FedExField on November 06, 2022 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
The Patriots will see few, if any, playmakers this year more explosive than third-year Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson. Through 10 games Jefferson has caught 72 passes for 1,093 yards and four touchdowns. He’s been a threat at all three levels of the field and has played both on the boundary and in the slot.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday morning. “His numbers are historic, he’s a great player.”
“He does a lot of things well,” Belichick continued. “Obviously, the deep ball, tracks it, very good at getting open, separation, good with the ball in his hands, he’s a hard guy to tackle and makes a lot of plays. After the catch, makes a lot of yards after the catch.”
Facing Jefferson is a scary proposition. The silver lining for the Patriots here though is outside of him, the Vikings offense doesn’t really have any complemetary explosive playmakers. Adam Thielen is off to his slowest start since Kirk Cousins got to Minnesota, and tight end T.J. Hockenson is still clearly picking up the offense since being acquired at the trade deadline. Running back Dalvin Cook is certainly talented and has been a weapon in the passing game in the past, but hasn’t been as big a part of it this year. He ranks fourth on the team with 34 targets, more than half of which have come at or behind the line of scrimmage. His usage in the passing game has become heavily tied to designed running back throws such as screens.
This sets up perfectly for one of the Patriots’ most tried and true defensive philosophies – when facing an offense that can be one dimensional, simply take that dimension away. This has also been referred to as making the opponent “play left handed” or “play with one hand tied behind their back.”
Expect the Patriots to smother Jefferson in coverage for a full 60 minutes on Thursday night. Double coverage, brackets, playing him physically up and down the field on every snap. Don’t be surprised if they rotate cornerbacks on him either to give him different looks. Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, and rookie Jack Jones could all factor in here.
Obviously, doubling Jefferson doesn’t guarantee him having no impact. The Bills certainly learned that lesson two weeks ago.
But, if the Patriots can take Jefferson – who is currently dealing with a turf toe injury – out of the game, it will go a long way towards limiting this Vikings’ offense. Cousins has a passer rating of just under 100 when targeting Jefferson this year, but that number drops by nearly 20 points when targeted the team’s other receivers.
Turning up the heat on Kirk Cousins
Nov 20, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon (9) celebrates with linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. (30) and defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale (95) after sacking New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (not seen) during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
The other thing the Patriots can do to slow down Minnesota’s passing attack? Turn up the heat on Kirk Cousins.
So far this season, Cousins has been two different passers depending on if he is or isn’t pressured. When he’s had a clean pocket, he has a completion percentage of 73.6 percent and a passer rating of 95.9. When he’s pressured though his completion percentage drops to 42.3 percent – one of the worst in the league – and his passer rating falls to 64.4.
Opportunities to pressure Cousins should be there for the Patriots too. Minnesota has already ruled out starting left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who suffered his second concussion in as many weeks Sunday against the Cowboys. PFF had Darrisaw rated as the third-ranked tackle in the NFL heading into this week.
Starting in pace of Darrisaw will be third-year tackle Blake Brandel. Brandel has stepped in for Darrisaw each of the last two weeks, playing 39 snaps in both games. Before that, he’d only played one offensive snap this season. Thursday will be his first career NFL start.
Brandel struggled to hold up in pass protection last week against the Cowboys. In those 39 snaps, he allowed four pressures and two sacks. He has a PFF grade of 44.2 this season. This week, he should see a heavy dose of Matthew Judon. Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots running twists, stunts, and other pass rush combinations designed to get Judon one-on-one with Brandel in passing situations.
The rest of the Vikings’ offensive line is expected to play, but there’s been a notable drop-off from the group as a whole when Darrisaw isn’t on the field. Look for the Patriots’ pass rush, which has been one of the best in the NFL this season, to take advantage and make Cousins uncomfortable early and often.
The passing game will need to do its part
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – OCTOBER 30: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots makes an adjustment at the line of scrimmage during the second half against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on October 30, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Last week against the Jets, throwing the ball beyond check downs to the running back didn’t seem to be much of an option. New York’s pass rush was constantly in Mac Jones’ face (he had the second-shortest time in the pocket of any quarterback in the NFL last week), and the Jets’ excellent secondary had things locked up down the field.
Against Minnesota, there should be more opportunities to push the ball down the field. Patrick Peterson has held things down as the Vikings’ top cornerback, but the other side has seen a revolving door. Meanwhile, slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan has struggled in coverage as well, ranking 105th out of 119 cornerbacks in terms of PFF coverage grade. Passers have a 117.8 passer rating when targeting him this year, which is the seventh-highest among all cornerbacks with at least 30 targets against.
Still, the Patriots’ offensive line needs to get things blocked up front and give the receivers time to run their routes and Jones time to throw the ball. They should have an easier time doing that this week than in their last three games against the Jets (twice) and Colts. The Vikings have pressured the passer on 20.9 precent of snaps this season, which ranks 21st in the NFL. They also have one of the lowest blitz rates in the league, at 17.5 percent.
There are two main pass rushers to worry about when it comes to the Vikings. Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith leads the team with 26 pressures and 9.5 sacks. He’s joined by defensive end Danielle Hunter who has 18 pressures and six sacks this year.
Both rush off the edge, so the Patriots’ tackles will be tested. But, the lack of a complementary interior rush like the Jets had with Quinnen Williams will afford the Patriots more opportunities to help on the outside.
It’s still tough to tell who the Patriots’ starting tackles will be in this game. Isaiah Wynn missed practice on Tuesday, and Trent Brown is coming off a game he didn’t start due to a “coaching decision.” If whoever gets the nod holds up though, look for the Patriots’ passing game to take another step this week.
The reality is too that the Patriots may need to be able to throw the ball to have a chance to win this game. Minnesota has one of the better run defenses in the league. Opponents are rushing for just 4.4 yards per carry against them this season. The Patriots may have other ways to get the ball in their running backs’ hands (screens, swing passes), but relying on the traditional running game may be risky.
Will special teams be the turning point again?
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA – OCTOBER 09: Greg Joseph #1 of the Minnesota Vikings field goal attempt is blocked by Kyler Gordon #6 of the Chicago Bears during the second half at U.S. Bank Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
The kicking game has come up huge for the Patriots in each of their last two games. A blocked punt against the Colts and then the game-winning punt return touchdown by Marcus Jones last week were both arguably the definitive play in each game. Could that theme continue for a third week in a row?
Don’t rule it out. The Vikings have had their issues on special teams this year, including having two field goals blocked. Punt returner Jalen Reagor has also had two fumbles this season.
During a short week, it can be hard to get to every little detail a team may want to in terms of preparation. Special teams is heavily reliant on details, so don’t be shocked to see a weird play or two in the kicking game.
This week should also afford Patriots kicker Nick Folk a chance to bounce back after a 1-for-3 performance against the Jets. Folk was kicking outdoors on a windy day with a first-time holder in Michael Palardy. This week, Folk will be kicking indoors, having spent a couple of days ironing out the operation with Palardy and long-snapper Joe Cardona.
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 21: A detail of a penalty flag in the game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
Fifth-year referee Alex Kemp and his crew will be the ones running the show Thursday night. That means our Thanksgiving diet will likely include a healthy dose of penalty flags.
Expect a tightly-called game Thursday night. These officials don’t let much slide, and ticky-tack calls will be in play. So far this season, Kemp’s crew has averaged 17.78 total flags thrown per game. That’s the most in the NFL. Of those, 13.11 penalties per game have been accepted. The flags have been equally split between the home and road teams.
This projects to impact the Patriots more than the Vikings. Minnesota has been called for 54 penalties this season, which ranks seventh in the league. The Patriots are more middle of the pack, ranking 17th with 60 penalties this season.
It hasn’t just been the sheer number of penalties that have hurt the Patriots this year though, as much as it’s been the timing of those calls. Offensive players and coaches have spoken numerous times this year about limiting mistakes that leave them behind the sticks in second-and-third & long situations. They’ll have to really be on their P’s and Q’s this week, with Kemp’s crew calling the game.
If this is a typical Kemp game, it could be a long one. Keep that in mind as you prepare to fight off the effects of the tryptophan Thursday night.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.